In the 18th and 19th centuries, the Japanese were still using a traditional lunar calendar in which the new year began in early to mid-February. (This year the new lunar year began slightly earlier, on January 22, 2004, according to Western date-keeping). The first three months of the lunar calendar were designated as spring, so the season depicted in the prints in this exhibition falls somewhat earlier than spring in the northeastern United States.
In Japan, the flowers most closely identified with this season are the plum (ume), the peach (momo), and most of all, the cherry (sakura). In painting and printmaking, the plum is often snow-covered because it traditionally blooms at the turn of the lunar new year. The other flowers blossom later, at the height of spring.
The poetry on these prints creates expected associations, drawing upon a rich body of allusion that derives from both the Chinese and Japanese literary traditions. In composition, too, these images often draw upon classical Chinese subjects rendered in the uniquely Japanese style of “bird-and-flower” prints (kachō-e).